“Incredible India!” is the slogan of the Indian tourist board, promoting the historical and cultural wonders of that huge country. India does not only have incredible history, monuments and culture, but it also has other sides, which make this country one of the most contradictory places in the world, and one of the most complicated to understand. In the simplified, partial and optimistic vision broadcast by major mass media, India is currently one of the countries with the highest rates of development, with a 7% annual growth of GDP, making it a competitor even for a giant like China. It’s the land of technology, at the forefront of information technology and research. Its industrial sector includes some of the greatest industrial global giants. It is one of the largest democracies in the world: it counts 1.1 billion citizens, including many different peoples and cultures and 23 official languages. It is the land of spirituality, a meeting point for all oriental religions, as well as the land of a cultural rebirth, with internationally acclaimed artists and the glitz of Bollywood, the large commercial filmmaking industry turning out hundreds of films a year.
However, the most striking aspect for anyone visiting India for tourism or other reasons is the devastating level of poverty afflicting the vast majority of the population. The first time I visited India in 2002, I landed in Bombay, now known as Mumbai, the financial and economic capital of the country. The population of Mumbai is believed to be 16 million, living in an urban infrastructure that should only accommodate 3 million. Driving from the airport to the city centre, one crosses an apocalyptic landscape of endless shacks, made grey by monsoons and by the misery of those who inhabit them. These slums cover the entire city, including the centre, in a mantle of poverty and deprivation beyond human endurance.
These horrible shantytowns rattle your polite western conscience, because what your eyes see cuts deep into your soul, if you have a soul. It is the feeling of shame for being so fortunate in the midst of such misery that upsets you. It makes you wonder about a country that is so rich in natural and human resources, so advanced in technology and computing, with the atomic bomb and industrial giants: how can the cradle of religions, eastern philosophies and peaceful protest tolerate- and in fact encourage- this degradation for its population? Today 400 million Indians live on less than two euros a day. 70% of people living in the cities live in decaying shantytowns or on the streets, while in the countryside survival depends on the arrival of a “good monsoon” which, due to climate change, often does not arrive. When there are food shortages this mass of people living in the poorest rural areas migrate to the largest towns, in search of hope, deceived by the unrealistic lifestyle portrayed in Bollywood films, swelling the bulging belly of the slums.
The majority of Bollywood films depict a wonderful life of wealth and extreme luxury, a magic that only 5% of the Indian population has access to: the ruling class owns 90% of Indian resources. This privileged elite lives in a golden bubble surrounded by the stench of poverty from the majority of the population, the same people they exploit to death, accumulating huge fortunes with the complicity of one of the most corrupt political classes in the world.
You enter the slums, among twisted sheet metal and open sewers; you’re dragged along narrow suffocating alleyways by a crowd of people toiling for their daily survival. A four-year old child walking alone grabs hold of your trousers in the middle of hundreds of legs rushing all around, not to ask for help, but just to wade through the crowd, heading somewhere without even knowing where. You realise that any of the objects you have on you is probably worth a year of economic wellbeing, yet nobody touches you if not to shake your hand, for the pleasure of sharing another life experience and to offer you a cup of tea. It is there, with everybody greeting you and smiling at you, that you understand the real meaning of India, of its people, the reason for their great humanity, tolerance and understanding, as well as for the extreme poverty, exploitation and social injustice. It is there that you understand that the stench of humanity cannot be smelled in the slums themselves, but only within the golden bubbles.
After that first trip to India I returned many times to the derelict people of the earth. It’s your soul that longs to be among them, the desire to help those who help you grow, to understand a world that is increasingly difficult to understand without asking anything in return. What drives me is the need to tell about the incredible humanity I had the fortune to meet in the dust of the slums.